THOMASBORO — David Overholt was a missile specialist in Germany, a hot spot in the Cold War.
The Rantoul native, 72, now lives in Thomasboro at a house you could never miss — the front yard features side-by-side flags, a concrete eagle and a large circular sign that says "Freedom Isn't Free" and "Never Forget."
He hands out pieces from flags that will be retired after long flying.
In the buddy system, he and a friend talked about joining the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He had been working at the Home Theater in Rantoul, as well as the Rantoul Drive-In.
Overholt told his buddy, “They’re the ones that took all our girls,” referring to nearby Chanute Air Force base, now closed.
Instead, Overholt was drafted into the Army in 1967.
“I was going to be sent to Vietnam, but I lucked out. I was sent to a Pershing missile crew in Germany,” he said. “It’s either face down the Russians or get shot by a rifle in Vietnam.”
The Pershing was a surface-to-surface, ballistic, two-stage, solid-propellant nuclear missile. It was the military’s primary nuclear-capable weapon in the 1960s.
Overholt was stationed at Neckarsulm, Germany, for almost two years looking toward Soviet troops to the east.
“Luckily, we never had to fire,” he said. “I never knew a Russian, and I never had a grudge.”
(Overholt did see the Pershing take flight at a test firing in New Mexico, however — one he programmed himself.)
His unit was part of the Strategic Air Command, Overholt said.
He programmed the Pershing missiles so they could be set to explode in the air, on the ground or after penetrating deep bunkers, Overholt said.
Often, his lodging was a tent — “With big diesel generators all around,” Overholt added.
He rarely left his base.
“What little of Germany I got to see was pretty much like going back in time,” he said. He noticed bullet holes from World War II in the centuries-old buildings.
His mission was a beast of time — it had to be constantly manned — and effort.
A Pershing missile required four vehicles to move it — including, at the beginning of Overholt’s two years, a half-track, the front of which had treads like a tank.
The missile was controlled by a computer.
“It was a fairly sophisticated computer for its time,” Overholt said.
The crew was ready to take its order to fire, but they dreaded its consequences.
“Firing a missile anywhere would set off a chain reaction,” he said.
As a committed soldier, Overholt believed in his mission.
“You take whatever they tell you as gospel,” he said.
And he felt what he was doing was important.
“I would have stayed with that program if I could have,” he said. “I would probably have made it my career.”
He was given a medical discharge. The machinery’s high-frequency noise caused a loss of hearing.
He worked at Solo Cup Co. and Serv-U over the years, and he is happy living in his highly decorated Thomasboro home with wife Loretta.
Overholt is a member of the Urbana American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He is also a member of the Disabled American Veterans in Champaign.